Monday, February 17, 2014

Flesh on bone: Stanley Crouch's animation of Bird

Yesterday, while hanging around at home, I listened about as closely and joyfully as I ever have to the early work of Count Basie. Classic jazz, undoubtedly, but as is often the case—at least for me—it was also jazz under glass. Unlike with, say, Blanton-Webster-era Ellington, I'd never really gotten up close with this music, inhaled it firsthand, rather than say digested its importance as a matter of received knowledge.

I have Stanley Crouch to thank for this. His new Charlie Parker early-years bio, Kansas City Lightning, is as readable, fun and info-packed a music book as I've read. It gets you close to Bird indeed, often uncomfortably so, but it also gets you close to his musical milieu, the sonic air he breathed as an insatiably curious up-and-comer. For the first time, here, I understood how 1930s jazz might have sounded, felt to a young fan growing up at that time, how Parker and his contemporaries obsessed over Chu Berry and Buster Smith in much the same way my friends and I—growing up in the very same city in the early ’90s—geeked out over Ian MacKaye or Glenn Danzig. Crouch's writing, and his portrayal of the gladiatorial bent of the jazz scene at the time, the way you had to step onto the bandstand with total command or risk being sent home with, as Parker associate and Crouch interviewee Gene Ramey puts it in the book, your "asshole blown out," has the effect of animating a period that can sometimes seem impossibly distant.

Crouch traces Parker through his various apprenticeships, obsessions, physical journeys in search of the elusive authority and dignity he craves. And he discusses the sociological stacked deck, resulting from segregation and racism, with which the saxophonist and all his contemporaries were forced to play. We learn about Kansas City swing, and how its flavor—just like that of the city's barbecue, highly acclaimed by Jay McShann in one unforgettable Kansas City Lightning passage: "…that wood-burning smell mixed up with that meat would hit you and you knew good and damn well you was in the right place. No mistake had been made. None."—differed from that of its New Orleans, Chicago and NYC counterparts. We learn about how the Bennie Moten and Walter Page bands gave rise to the great Basie organization, and about the improvisational heroes—both household-name (Lester Young, Roy Eldridge) and largely unsung (Berry, Smith)—of the day. We learn of Bird's obsessive fandom and thirst for knowledge, the way he'd find a record he loved, or a willing practice partner, and wring every last drop of useful information out of the source in question.

But what makes this a truly special book, and not just a particularly vivid origin story, is the way Crouch juxtaposes his gripping artistic coming-of-age tale with a much darker shadow narrative: Parker's early descent into addiction, and the catastrophic effect it had on his first marriage, narrated with the help of Parker's then-wife, Rebecca Ruffin, whom Crouch interviewed in the early ’80s. We've always known that Charlie Parker was a "complex" character. But there are scenes here that will chill your blood. Crouch doesn't take sides, and in the end, this is much more a musical biography than a character study. But in spending as much time as he does on Parker's personal shortcomings, he forces us to reckon with the totality of his subject, to grapple with the emotional toll of his rise to genius.

When I first heard about Kansas City Lightning, I was turned off by the idea that the book only covered Parker's prefame years. I tend to grow impatient with the early pages of biographies, the accounts of childhood, schooling and the like. But Crouch draws you in by opening with Parker's first major career milestone, a blockbuster appearance with Jay McShann's band in NYC, and then looping back to the beginning. We know that we're working toward a shining moment, and we can't wait to learn how Parker got there. Read this book, and you'll come away with a step-by-step understanding, technical at times but mostly lay-friendly, of how Parker developed into the master and revolutionary, the architect of a new jazz language, that he became. It's a perspiration story more than an inspiration one—to hear Crouch tell it, Parker got where he got because he simply wanted it more than any of his peers. And the book's greatest achievement, aside from its witty, musical and generally outstanding prose feel—part insidery raconteur's tale, part sweeping, research-dense history—swift pacing and artful digression, is how intensely it makes you feel that wanting, that burning desire to improve, to achieve and to be recognized for it, that it so central to the Charlie Parker origin story.

Kansas City Lightning conveys the feeling of bebop, and swing before it, as something that had to be fought for, step by agonizing step, through obstacles both aesthetic and societal. And how, at least in Parker's case, that fight wasn't some noble, romantic climb to the top but rather a particularly harrowing and even repulsive evolution, an almost literal shedding of skin that took an extreme toll on the young musician and everyone around him. We hear about this idea of "warts and all"; that's what Kansas City Lightning is: a 360-degree view, as well as a high-powered X-ray, not just of the subject, but of the culture (1930s America) and subculture (Swing Era jazz) that birthed him. I feel ’30s and ’40s jazz in a new way thanks to this book, as something I can bite into rather than simply respect. Crouch's book fulfills the chief criterion of a great, general-readership biography: It puts flesh on its subject's bones.

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